Principal Cast : Keri Russell, Alden Erenreich, O’Shea Jackson, Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Brooklyn Prince, Christian Convery, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Ayoola Smart, Aaron Holliday, JB Moore, Leo Hanna.
Synopsis: An oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converge on a Georgia forest where a huge black bear goes on a murderous rampage after unintentionally ingesting cocaine.
Although struggling to balance its absurdly large ensemble cast with the very thing the audience has come to see, Elizabeth Banks’ bloody, violent take on the eponymous true story of a bear that ingested copious amounts of cocaine in a national park is an absolute blast and one camping trip worth taking. Delivering a number of cool dismemberments, copious amounts of bears doing very un-bear-like things and a variety of gormless potential victims stumbling into the path of the blazingly high title creature, Cocaine Bear is a raucous, crowd-pleasing time that offers very few cogent thoughts amidst the blood, gore and scatological humour, none the least of which is a hilarious Ray Liotta in one of his final on-screen roles.
After a plane load of cocaine is accidentally dumped into Chattahoochee National Park, Georgia, it is discovered and gorged upon by an enormous black bear, whereupon the creature goes on a murderous drug-fuelled rampage of violence. In the path are a desperate mother searching for her lost daughter, an out-of-state policeman searching for the drugs, and the henchmen of the drug kingpin whose cocaine it is, as well as a gamut of hikers, hoodlums and park rangers. With the body-count rising and the bear only becoming more enamoured with ingesting the illicit substance at every opportunity, it seems like not even bullets will stop its onslaught.
Cocaine Bear is exactly the kind of film I expected to come out of schlock el-cheapo production house The Asylum. You know, the Sharknado crew. Unlike The Asylum, however, Universal Pictures have access to a substantially larger budget to produce their movies, and Pitch Perfect star Elizabeth Banks (having paid her dues directing the eezy-breezy second instalment of that popular a capella trilogy) is given a hefty boost with this, her third full feature (following Charlies Angels in 2019) and one that allows her to flex her considerably hilarious muscles. Cocaine Bear is a story built on a (very) slim premise that has greater entertainment in the mind’s eye than it perhaps ever could in a narrative 90-minute movie. The official real-life story of “Cocaine Bear“, which really did gorge itself on a stash of drugs lost in the Tennessee wilderness, is nowhere near as hilariously over-the-top as Banks’ feature film endeavour, more’s the pity, but thanks to some fine comedic writing by Jimmy Warden, some wink-wink performances by a solid cast, and the director’s subtle visual wit cranking at full-throttle, the end result is a grand old time watching a cranky drugged up bear claw, rip, chew and slash itself across the screen in this orgy of absurdity and stupendous self-awareness. Cocaine Bear doesn’t really pretend to be something it’s not – a solemn, dignified film – and goes for the jugular with cringeworthy moments of human carnage, splashing blood and gore across the screen in the kind of fashion far too few mainstream creature-features attempt these days. This is a joke of an idea given full-blooded (pun intended) production value and it’s we, the viewer, who are the winners.
Disregarding the portentous “based on a true story” title card – honestly, an “inspired by” credit is probably all this film required – Cocaine Bear is ribald, vicarious fun. In no way is it meant to be taken seriously, offering wanton gratuity rather than contemplative sensibility, with the titular bear hopped up on cocaine from the very first frame. Banks’ film plays very loosely with realism, content instead to settle for a briskly paced monster movie tone similar to genre classics such as Lake Placid, Eight Legged Freaks or Anaconda, the latter a film in which O’Shea Jackson’s father, rapper Ice Cube, made his big break into Hollywood back in the 90’s. Jackson takes on the comparative straight man role here, mirroring his father’s work in Anaconda as the “sensible one”, surrounded by people of questionable intelligence in the face of an enormous, unpredictable bear prowling the woods.
His immediate co-star, Alden Ehrenreich, is terrific as the grief-stricken Eddie, son of rampant drug courier Syd (Ray Liotta, to whom an in memoriam card is given at the film’s conclusion – Cocaine Bear is the first of a series of posthumous releases following his passing in May of 2022) while Margo Martindale and Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson play the fool as a pair of abominably idiotic park rangers with the kind of cringeworthy “comedy” style employed by the very worst of SNL alumni. Keri Russell has a role as a mother searching for her lost daughter, but she might as well be one of the trees the film spends a great deal of its time up as the bear prowls through the cast, for all the interest we (of Banks, for that matter) has in her character. Child actors Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) and Christian Convery (Sweet Tooth) are both conspicuously wooden in their supporting roles, with Convery in particular struggling with the demands of this black-humoured subgenre piece. Isiah Whitlock plays a police detective tracking the missing cocaine and is about the only actor in this thing with any gravitas, as misplaced as it is.
But the acting isn’t important. What is important is the bear and giving the audience what they paid good goddam money to see: a bear hopped up on so much crack it’s like a furry chainsaw tearing through flesh as often and as brutally as it can. Several sequences of limb-shredding brutality will make weaker-stomached viewers flinch and grab the arm of the person next to them, and the behaviour of the bear whilst encumbered with cocaine in its system is ironically hilarious – I was guffawing loudly at the absurdity of it all, I was enjoying things so much – but even whilst watching it you know at least two things: a, this could have been a much better movie, and b, even if it’s not very good you’re still having a great time watching it. Humour, even laughs as black as this, is still inherently fun, and despite critical flaws with things like pacing and character development, Cocaine Bear is the epitome of a crowd-pleasing fun time. A film best suited to watch with a large group (and, if I’m honest, several beers in), I found myself cackling deliriously not so much at the astoundingly deadpan characters involved but at just how audacious Elizabeth Banks is with her storytelling. This is some straight up dark shit.
Tonally, Cocaine Bear plays like a very expensive independent movie that, if I didn’t know better, seems like it was made up as they went along. The segmented skit-based nature of some of the set-pieces doesn’t allow for a fluid balance between the grisliness and comedic elements of the story, and I’ll be honest the characters involved aren’t particularly engaging when they’re not reacting to the bear. The bear, an almost entirely CG motion capture effect throughout, is suitably terrifying, whereupon it also has to deliver some cute, whimsical irony (falling asleep on top of Alden Ehrenriech’s character at one point is one of the parts at which I actually laughed out loud) betwixt the gore and viscera. Several of the character deaths are awesomely brutal and bloody, a couple are a shrug of the shoulders, and at least one had me covering my crotch in second-hand agony for what transpired on the screen. It’s a fun horror-comedy romp, a lot less The Revenant and a lot more The Great Outdoors than I was expecting. Cocaine Bear isn’t a game changer, and it sure as shit isn’t believable (despite the solid period costuming and production design, setting this film in the 80’s isn’t a big deal, really) but it’s a heck of a lot of flesh-tearing fun. I doubt I’ll need to see it more than once or twice, but it comes highly recommended if only for one person’s take on what is perhaps the most brain-melting movie premises I’ve heard in my entire life. Cocaine Bear is a little high on its own supply, but the trip is absolutely worth it.